COVINGTON, Va. (VR) – Sounds of two huge wrecking machines smashing the three-storied Collins Hotel from its roof down while moving from its backside south to north could be heard several blocks away in Covington on Friday, April 14.
I drove to the site and watched the metal teeth of the huge bucket bite into the roof, clamp down and crash through three floors of rooms, leaving a pile of splintered rafters and beams on the ground, where they were swept up by the bucket and dumped into dumpsters.
My first view of the Collins Hotel was in 1978, the year that I moved from Los Alamitos, California, to Alleghany County to serve as the head coach of the Alleghany County Colts’ boys’ basketball team.
It was not long thereafter that I discovered the barbershop on the street level at the Collins Hotel, one I soon entered and became the barber’s customer. By the end of the workday on Friday, the barbershop was demolished, and the sign on the window, “Wildroot: Ask for the best; America’s favorite,” that had remained for decades following the closing of the barbershop was evidently somewhere in the pile of rubble and smashed glass.
The two Doric columns that once elegantly stood at the entrance to the Collins Hotel were spared during the first day’s work. I once walked between those columns and entered the Collins Hotel as a guest speaker for the Covington Woman’s Club.
Lilly Albert, who was murdered several years later outside the back door of the Sacred Heart Church on Main Street in Covington (a crime that remains unsolved), had invited me as the guest speaker for the evening.
Boodie Albert Stadium at Casey Field is named for Lily’s brother, Boodie, the legendary football coach of Covington High School who played football for Notre Dame.
He returned to coach the Covington Cougars football team to many championships. Lily was a civic leader, and the Covington Woman’s Club often met at the Collins Hotel.
Undisturbed on the front of the building facing Maple Avenue across the street from the restored C&O Depot, a notice remained posted on the front of the Collins Hotel that stated, “This Building (or structure) is unsafe, and its occupancy (or use) is prohibited by the Building Official.”
Dizzy Garten, the current owner of the property, was tending to business in Lewisburg, while the Case Lawrence CX 240D Long Reach’s operator methodically deployed the machine’s metal bucket to the top of the roof and shattered three floors each time it came crashing down to send a cloud of dust swirling from the debris.
As the demolishing of the hotel continued, I could see through a front window on Maple Avenue all the way to the back where the two machines were working in tandem to execute the company’s plan to raze the hotel.
Along the sidewalk in front of the hotel, shards of glass from broken windows had accumulated during the past several years of the hotel’s decline from a state-of-the-art hotel built of 20-bay brick with several street-level retail shops to a dilapidated building, one too expensive to renovate or to restore.
When the Collins Hotel was being built, Howard Taft was president some four years before World War I began, and the hotel opened prior to the “Covington Virginian” being established in 1914, decades before it was renamed the “The Virginian Review.”
As I walked along Maple Avenue, I saw a single glove on the sidewalk with its fingers pointing skyward near a rusty tin can’s lid, lying in front of a doorframe with faded green paint that had peeled over time to render it to resemble the scales on an alligator’s back as the two machines continued to chew their way toward it.
A door was missing from one of the shops facing Maple Avenue as the wrecking machines closed in, and I photographed a sewing machine and shop furniture covered by dust, items that were not spared by the end of the weekend.
Michael M. Collins built the Collins Hotel to serve passengers who were in need of overnight accommodations, and those who rented rooms with windows facing the C&O Depot could peer out through them beneath their capped brickwork that contributed to the stylish architectural composition of the brick façade.
The gauged brickwork facing Maple Avenue remained standing for the most part by the end of the day on Friday, but by Sunday afternoon, during my third trip to take photographs, a splay of bricks and debris lay halfway across Maple Avenue, although the two Doric columns still stood.
The Collins Hotel, which took months to build more than 100 years ago, was nearly leveled by the two wrecking machines by Sunday afternoon.
Across Maple Avenue stood the fully restored C&O Railroad Depot in its former grandeur, a destination for many travelers who frequented the Collins Hotel for decades.
Perhaps symbolic of the Collins Hotel was the image of the Statue of Liberty on a sign that once advertised the Hip Hop Shop, a clothing store that operated as one of the street-level shops.
Like the Wildroot sign and the sewing machine, the Statue of Liberty sign was nowhere to be seen by the end of the weekend.
The building owner Dizzy Garten provided the following statement to The Virginian Review:
“I have loved that building for a very long time. I tried and tried to save it. I met with multiple engineers, architects and contractors and, unfortunately, it was going to be a minimum of $12,500,000 to remodel it, and it could’ve had overruns to push it upwards of $15,000,000.
“With that being the case, ‘The juice wasn’t worth the squeeze.’ This property was in such a bad shape when I purchased it, that I was literally the only person that showed up for the public tax sale and I bought it for a very small fee. Since then, the structural integrity of it has fallen to a point of no return, and it had become extremely dangerous. Bricks were falling into the public works parking lot, and the glass panes were falling out into the streets nonstop.
“I do have some plans for the property. Before any rumors get started, it won’t be a warehouse or storage units ha-ha. We have saved the big concrete columns out front to save some of the integrity of the structure and should have everything cleaned up in the next few days.
“As much as we all hated to see it, I think that in the future it will turn very nice and hopefully something everyone can be proud of.”
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